Mayor Ed Lee’s vow to rid San Francisco of tents used by the homeless in public spaces is no small feat as The City recently estimated more than 700 residents are relying on the structures for shelter — and thousands more are living on the streets.
The crackdown comes following a controversial sweep of homeless tents along Division Street that culminated on March 1 and the teardown of tents along Shotwell Street over the weekend — the latter follows police fatally shooting a homeless man armed with a knife who was living in the encampment.
But the question remains how the mayor expects an already-strained housing and shelter system to handle the influx of those living in San Francisco’s current 100 tent encampments.
Pier 80, for example, is a recently created 180-capacity shelter that was used to offer a place to stay for those swept from Division Street. On Sunday night, 165 people slept at the facility, which is slated to close July 1.
And more tent sweeps may be coming soon.
“The Health Dept. will be inspecting encampment area(s) this week, based on information from the [Homeless Outreach Team], the Public Works Department and constituent calls,” said Rachael Kagan, Department of Public Health spokesperson, in an email. “Whether they post notices depends on the results of the inspections.”
It was the department’s posting of these nuisance notices that prompted the Division Street sweep.
The mayor’s long-term effort to address the encampments is expected to be reflected in his funding priorities when he submits a proposed city budget to the Board of Supervisors for review and adoption on June 1.
“The mayor wants to take a different approach to these encampments and to the clear public safety hazards they pose,” Lee’s spokesperson, Christine Falvey, said in an email Monday. “We will always offer people alternatives to the street first, whether that is a shelter bed, a spot at a Navigation Center, supportive housing, and sometimes by reconnecting people with loved ones back home. We will have a place for people to go, but at some point, when people refuse to accept shelter or services, camping on the street is not going to be an option.”
The conversation about homeless tents has been occurring behind the political scenes for months. To the dismay of many homeless advocates, Supervisor Scott Wiener sent a letter in January to city departments asking for a response to his concerns over the increasing number of tents with the goal of eliminating them from public spaces.
In a joint response this month, six department heads offered both statistics and the challenge.
There are about 3,500 people living on the streets and an estimated 100 encampments, defined as groups of two or more, the letter said. A recent count found 704 residents living in tents at those sites.
The City already has a number of outreach efforts on the ground attempting to connect those living on the streets to city services, shelter and housing. “Most of the encampment residents with whom [the homeless outreach team] has engaged are interested in permanent housing,” the letter said.
There are various challenges for housing those when vacancies do arise, including the requirement to have a California identification card or other documentation, limited means of income, criminal records, including from “quality of life” tickets and poor credit or histories of evictions.
The mayor’s approach is drawing concerns from homeless advocates who are wary of the lack of details and fear it means further criminalization.
Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, said she plans to meet today with the mayor’s chief of staff to obtain clarity.
“I don’t know what he’s doing,” Friedenbach said of Mayor Lee. “I’m trying to find out.”
Friedenbach argues that The City shouldn’t be taking away “that little bit of shelter” unless they can locate these persons into permanent housing. Instead, she said, The City should work with the homeless in keeping the tent areas clean and safe in the meantime. Otherwise, removing the tents is “not solving the crisis, but only making it worse.”